Kashmir in Crisis

Sanjay Kak is a New Delhi-based, award-winning independent documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work reflects his interests in ecology, alternatives and resistance politics and movements. His films include How We Celebrate Freedom, Words on Water and Red Ant Dream. He is editor of Until My Freedom Has Come: The New Intifada in Kashmir and Witness.

David Barsamian: You’ve said that “Kashmir’s landscape carries ancient burdens.” What do you mean by that?

Sanjay Kak: One of the first things I realized when I began to seriously look at Kashmir was that the weight of being colonized was a very heavy and ever-present one. I’m sure every culture feels these things, but in Kashmir I felt that it was always just below the surface. So this idea that Kashmir has been colonized for five centuries and that Kashmiris have not been their own people for a very long time, I think this was very deep and felt, and felt like a burden. That’s really what I meant.

During British rule there was a system of princely states. Kashmir was one of them. It had a Muslim-majority population and a Hindu king, Hari Singh. In 1947, the British partitioned India. What happens to Kashmir in that partition?

The former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir is not a very ancient thing. While the Kashmir Valley itself or Ladakh or each of its constituent elements have, obviously, long histories, the state of Jammu and Kashmir existed for probably only as long as 100 years, between 1847 and 1947. And it was put together quite aggressively by the royal family, or what were called the Dogra rulers. They were quite successful in militarily expanding its limits. Although they originally came from the plains of Punjab, they eventually bought the Kashmir Valley for a trifling sum of 650,000 rupees and they annexed Ladakh. So they kind of consolidated a state.

When the moment of decolonization came, which is in 1947, historically people tend to think that there was a maharajah, the maharajah was in control of the place, and he simply signed over the state of Jammu and Kashmir to India. Certainly this is the way that most Indians tend to see it. The truth was quite different. The truth was that there was from the 1930s a very vigorous anti-feudal movement in Kashmir. The peasantry was in a state of great dissatisfaction, because the Dogra regime was extremely extractive. 

Close to 1947, in the mountainous region of Poonch—and this is very interesting, and I think it’s worth spending a moment on it. Poonch is a very spare, water-scarce, quite poor part of the Jammu and Kashmir Valley, and for various historical reasons, a lot of soldiers from Poonch served in the British army. These were men who had fought all across Europe, North Africa. Then, when the war got over and they went home, they went back into this completely feudal, exploitative system. And they were not going to take it.

So Poonch, even before 1947, had a rebellion. I’m trying to point out to you that it wasn’t simply as if the maharajah had a kingdom intact and he just signed it over to the next owner. The fact is that he presided over a very fractious, troubled, uncertain state. So his signing over the state of Jammu and Kashmir to India was actually a very fragile and contentious thing. I think this is something that history has begun to acknowledge, but this is a recent phenomenon.

And this is called the Instrument of Accession.

When the princely states joined India, or were coerced to join India, as some would have it, there were two parts of it: one was that they signed the Instrument of Accession, and then there was a merger. Most states in India—so you have the big states in Rajputana, many of the princely states—did both. In the case of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, because there were many things which were uncertain and unsettled, the Instrument of Accession was signed but the merger was never completed.

The recent developments around Kashmir and the confusion around article 370 is a byproduct of that in that the merger was never complete and things were to be decided. Article 370 was that legal provision in the Indian Constitution which gave the state of Jammu and Kashmir certain special rights as an acknowledgment that we haven’t actually merged with India, we have simply acceded to it, but there was to be a constituent assembly which was to decide the details of it.

Why did Maharajah Hari Singh hesitate to make a decision? What was going on there?

The good thing is that in recent years there is a substantial amount of literature which begins to look precisely at these territories, not from hearsay but from records. One of the things was that he was naturally suspicious of the nationalist movement in India, like many princely states in India were. Let’s say, as represented in the figure of Nehru, it was a democratizing, even socialist orientation. And the maharaja was very uncomfortable with that. More important, his most significant rival, or opponent, in Kashmir was Sheikh Abdullah, who led a very important anti-feudal movement. And Sheikh Abdullah was very close to Nehru. So these were two very strong reasons for the maharajah to be opposed to that merger.

But more important, he also had a Muslim-majority population. The state of Jammu and Kashmir was a Muslim-majority population, as you’ve pointed out. And he felt that he might stand a better chance in Pakistan, where at that time the feeling was that perhaps the new state of Pakistan would be a little better disposed towards the feudals. His own prime minister, who coincidentally has the same last name as me—Ram Chandra Kak—very strongly argued for the state of Jammu and Kashmir acceding to Pakistan. And it’s only in the crucial matter of the last weeks in October that this matter was then resolved and the maharajah signed the Instrument of Accession.

October 1947. At this time Nehru, who becomes the first prime minister of independent India, makes representations about holding a plebiscite in Kashmir—not once, but several times. What happened to those promises?

I think that hindsight will judge that Nehru was more of a democrat in theory than he was in practice. Very famously, in some correspondence, when he was told that the early elections were being rigged massively by Sheikh Abdullah, he said that Kashmir is not ready for democracy yet. So that I think you could, if you wanted to be generous to him, say that the pragmatic details of putting together a new nation, that the British had simply cut out of a whole subcontinent and left in complete disarray, made him act like that. But I don’t know if we can be so generous. We have to acknowledge that in spite of the many of the promises that Nehru made to Kashmir and Kashmiris, couched in the most eloquent prose, both about democracy and about Kashmir, when push came to shove, he just acted exactly like any hard-nosed non-democrat would.

Talk about something that’s called Kashmiriyat, that this is a unique culture with its own language, its own music, architecturally it’s quite singular as well—and you happen to be Kashmiri—so there is a very strong cultural identity.

There are two very interesting things here. The word Kashmiriyat itself is of relatively recent usage. You will find, and to your surprise, that many Kashmiris will sort of blanch at the use of the word. And there is an explanation. Because in recent years in India the word Kashmiriyat has been time and again produced in front of Kashmiris to suggest that your struggle is not Kashmiriyat. For example, if your faith is Muslim, that’s not really Kashmiriyat. So it’s become a kind of word which has been appropriated by the Indian state and by the instruments of the Indian state in the shape of the media, in the shape of its so-called liberal commentators and so on.

Having said that, while Kashmiriyat might have become a bit of a loaded word in Kashmir, I have no doubt that something like that does exist. If I might pull back and suggest that I think what is unique about Kashmir is its geographical location. Many Indians tend to think of Kashmir as the northern end of India, this is where India ends. But the truth is that geographically Kashmir is where the Indian subcontinent opens out into the world. So if we were to see simply where it’s located, what do we have? To the east we have Ladakh, we have Tibet, we have China, and Kashmiris have historically traded on those routes. To its north we have Central Asia, we have Kazakhstan, we have Tajikistan. And from Srinagar, these Central Asian republics are much closer than New Delhi is. And then to the west we have Pakistan, we have Afghanistan, we have Iran. All of these have greatly shaped Kashmiri culture. And to the south—and you can’t deny that—you have India, or the Indian subcontinent, which was up to a point Hindu as well.

The point I’m trying to make is that it sat at this incredible crossroads, where to be open to other faiths, other cultures, other civilizations, other impulses, to trade with them, the negotiation of culture I think was a very natural phenomenon in Kashmir. I would actually argue that 1947 and the creation of India and Pakistan and the coming up of modern borders and the wars between India and Pakistan and the Line of Control, as it is called, which separates these countries, actually imposed a kind of isolation on Kashmir which is historically not Kashmir.

I know quite well the Kashmiri poet Zareef Ahmad Zareef. I once heard him say that, Look, you people have shut off one of our nostrils by putting this ghastly border on our head. Allow us to breathe with both our nostrils, and then just see how much more humane we are capable of being. I think it’s a lovely metaphor. Kashmir since 1947 has literally been breathing out of one nostril, because our natural flows out of the Kashmir Valley are not necessarily towards the south, towards India. Our rivers flow into what is now Pakistan. Prior to 1947, the shortest road out of the valley led you to Muzaffarabad, to Mirpur, to Sialkot and Rawalpindi. So in a sense partition imposed a kind of abnormal conjoining of Kashmir with the Indian subcontinent. 

One-third of the state is controlled by Pakistan, two-thirds is controlled by India. And there is also a sliver of Jammu and Kashmir that China has control of. How did that come about? 

Basically, the essential division was between Pakistan and India, which was based eventually on the three wars that the two countries have fought. And wherever they finally stopped, that was the Line of Control. What in India we call Pakistan occupied Kashmir. These are the regions of Azad Kashmir, which is Muzaffarabad, and then, of course, the old Gilgit-Baltistan, which has very strong cultural and other ties with the Kargil region of Ladakh. The part that China controls was actually ceded to China by Pakistan. That’s a relatively recent phenomenon. This is in this very high altitude, very forbidding, very difficult territory called Aksai Chin. The Chinese highway had to come up through that, which connects those parts of China to Pakistan and then to the Gwadar port that China is building for Pakistan.

After 1947, Kashmir continues to be unresolved, festers. There are skirmishes, there are wars, there are conflicts. But something more substantial happens in terms of resistance starting in 1989.

I’m glad that we got a chance to talk about the anti-feudal movement in the 1930s, because in many ways that was the first time when a Kashmiri political identity had begun to form. It’s quite interesting that that first political formation, headed by Sheikh Abdullah, was called the Muslim Conference, because that’s who it represented the interests of. But 10 or 12 years down the line they actually changed it to the National Conference, because they wanted it to be more representative of all kinds of people.

But almost immediately after 1947, the National Conference, led by Sheikh Abdullah, was completely appropriated by the Indian state, first by arresting Sheikh Abdullah. This is the irony of it. The man who brought Kashmir into the union with India in four short years had turned into an enemy of the state. So Sheikh Abdullah spent many years in jail himself, 15 years in jail. But when he came out, he completely capitulated. I think the modern resistance to the Indian state and the idea of a Kashmiri identity came out of that capitulation. 

Let’s just say the appropriation of Sheikh Abdullah by the Indian state, which happened over a longish period of time, also saw the first signs of the appearance of this new word azaadi. From the 1980s onwards, every protest, every demonstration in Kashmir is always flagged and punctuated by this word “Ham Kya Chahtey? Azaadi.” “What do we want? Freedom.”

Azaadi means freedom.

This appeared around those years, in the mid- to the late 1980s, for the first time. Although it wasn’t an armed resistance, there were stray signs in the 1970s. There was a small group of college-educated kids who got a hold of some pistols and some explosives called the Al Fatah, but they were put down very quickly. Most of them were appropriated, and they joined the police and the administration. But it wasn’t really a serious challenge. Most people agree that in 1987 there is, famously, this election, which was completely in character with all the elections that had preceded it—massively rigged. Perhaps in another time it would not have mattered, but in 1987 one of the political formations which stood for the election was a loose coalition of parties and groups called the Muslim United Front. MUF it was called. MUF was actually doing quite well, and they had polled a lot of votes. But as was the tradition in Kashmir, at the last minute the ballot boxes were opened, candidates were picked up, beaten up. It was a complete travesty. Even by the standards of rigged elections in India it was too much.

So something very significant clicked after the rigging. Although some people tend to think that the armed resistance in Kashmir was because of the rigged election, I think that’s an incorrect reading. The fact is that the election provided literally the straw that broke the camel’s back. We could not see much happening between 1987 and 1989, but by late 1989 a proper armed insurgency arrived on the scene.

The important thing is that we also have to pay attention to what this year is, because 1989 is also the time when the Soviet Union is withdrawing from Afghanistan, Pakistan has on its hands a whole lot of the Mujahideen, which, with great support from the American public and state, have waged wars with the Soviets. More important, Pakistan is also in some crude sense wanting to avenge its loss of its eastern division in 1971, for which the Pakistani state and the Pakistani army have never forgiven India.

That led to the creation of the independent country of Bangladesh.

That’s right. Which was a movement not unlike what we are seeing in Kashmir today, which India wholly supported. Not only did India accept millions of refugees from across the border, but India also armed and trained the guerillas, what were called the Mukti Bahini, the freedom force.

What I’m trying to point out to you is that 1989 is a moment that takes on a valency on account of a multiple series of events. It has to do with what’s happening in Pakistan, it has to do with what’s happening in Kashmir, it has to do with past histories. And everything comes together and then explodes in an armed rebellion.

Give us a sense of what occupation looks like: roadblocks, checkpoints, barbed wire, army camps, detention centers, and the rest. What’s life like for ordinary Kashmiris in what is often called the most densely militarized zone in the world, with hundreds of thousands of Indian security forces?

Quite simply, I think any place which has as many soldiers with the kind of density that Kashmir has is going to have a rebellion. I would argue that your hometown of Boulder, Colorado, if suddenly half a million soldiers of whatever country arrive—they could have been the U.S. Army—land up there, and start telling people what to do, I don’t think it’s going to lead to anything other than that kind of a rebellion. 

Everything that we think about in terms of how Kashmiris experience the occupation is a direct result of the extreme militarization of this place. Conservative estimates say that it’s a half a million soldiers. Half a million soldiers in a tiny valley which you can literally drive from one end of to the other in the course of a day is a tremendous, tremendous pressure on people. That would be at the very least. Even if the soldiers were not being obnoxious. But since 1989, since the armed rebellion broke out, in one way or the other Kashmir has been in a state of war. The presence of the army, their pursuit of the militants, their inability to distinguish between friend and foe has meant that in a sense the half a million soldiers are not simply at war with the militants, they are at war with the people. They’re not at war with a foreign army, or they’re not at war with a uniformed army. They’re at war with everybody who is around them.

This has resulted in a very long history of all the consequences of militarization, some of which you mentioned, which is control, the control of resources, the fact that some of the most prized pieces of land in Kashmir have been and continue to be occupied by the military, the fact that the civil administration is really subservient to the military. I know that until very recently in small towns like Handwara or Kupwara, as soon as you entered the town, there would be a board outside which said, “Town Commander, Major So-and-So,” and a phone number. It was a very clear declaration that there might be a civil administration there, but it was the military which was in command.

The long history of the military presence has led to all kinds of very dark dimensions. For a long time these were not things that we had a clear idea about. Everybody knew torture exists, everybody knew there are disappearances, people whispered about the existence of unmarked graves, mass graves, people talked about torture, sexual violence. But it’s only in the last decade or so, with the emergence of a very strong and vocal and articulate civil society, that these things have begun to be nailed into the ground.

For example, we can speak with great respect of the work of the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, which has produced a series of absolutely remarkable reports. They did one on disappearances and for the first time gave us a figure of 8- to 10,000 people disappeared. They have done a harrowing new report on torture. They have done, I think, what is a very brave report called “Alleged Perpetrators” to demonstrate the kind of impunity that the military has. The whole idea of this report was to actually name 100 people and say, Look, this is what they did, this is what the legal papers say. And why has no one taken action against them? With it are the darker stories of sexual violence, which in a conservative society people tend not to want to talk about. Or even torture, because when people say torture, they also mean sexual torture, which applies not just to women but also to men. These are aspects of that militarization. It’s only now that Kashmiris are even finding a voice for it.

I have to say, this. You know about the two latest UN reports that came out about Kashmir. It was the first time that the UN had systematically responded to the situation in Kashmir in several decades. A lot of information in those reports took its cues from the work of Kashmiri civil society.

One of the  terms in Kashmir is half-widow. Explain what that is.

Half-widow is a term that kind of grew out of this phenomenon of the disappearances of people, where there were people who were picked up—some, it was known that they had been picked up by the security forces; most of the time, actually, people knew who had picked them up and when—and who then disappeared into some dark system where you were not sure, were they dead, were they in prison, were they in prison somewhere else outside of Kashmir. For the families of those men, mostly, they were left in a state of limbo, which is that they didn’t know if their loved ones, their husbands, their sons, their fathers, were going to come back. Even if for wives and children it meant one thing, for a lot of women, they were left sometimes for 5, 10, 15, 20 years waiting for a partner who might never come back. So I think the term half-widow actually came out as a response to that, to describe the terrible condition of people who didn’t know where their loved ones were.

There is an activist woman there, Parveena Ahangar, who has taken this issue of disappearances and made it known.

She has become some kind of a global figure now. She was one of the people who helped set up an  organization called APDP, the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons. They have a great deal of moral authority. Parveena herself, her 16-year-old son Javaid was picked up and never came back. Parveena has had a very simple position, which is to say, “Tell me where my son is. I just want to know. He could be dead. I want to know where he is, I want to know where his grave is. And I’m not going to accept anything else.” They meet, on, I think, the 10th of every month in a public park in Srinagar, and they’ve been doing this for 6, 7, 10 years, maybe longer. Rain, sunshine, hail, whatever it is, they will be there, just not letting the world forget that their loved ones are missing. The APDP and Parveena Ahangar represent a powerful and poignant moral force.

Advocates for Delhi’s position that Kashmir must be an integral part of the Indian union point inevitably to the treatment of the Hindu minority in Kashmir, that some of them were killed, they were driven out, they were treated unfairly, and this goes to delegitimize any form of resistance to the Indian state.

In particular, what you are referring to is the Kashmiri Hindus, who are called Kashmiri Pandits. One interesting thing is that in 1989, when the armed insurgency broke out, and 1990, when the Kashmiri Hindus first began to leave, at the same time there was also a sizable population of Kashmiri Sikhs in Kashmir. It has to be put on the table that the Kashmiri Sikhs never left in the same way. I merely bring this up to say that we have to look at the reasons why one minority had to leave and the other did not. 

Kashmiri Pandits were targeted in the early 1990s. They were a minority. They were, let’s just say, even a privileged minority. They had access to education, and therefore they were in government jobs, some were in police, some were in organizations. So they became an immediate target of some of the militant groups. It has to be said that in the 1990s, particularly, not all militant groups were made up of honorable freedom fighters. Some of them were just lumpen hoods. That happens in any liberation movement; it’s made up of all kinds of people. So there were random acts of violence, there were very credible allegations of rape.

But it’s also true that all through the 1990s, if we were to look at the number of killings of Kashmiri Pandits, I don’t think it could cross 300. This is also a decade in which close to, let’s say, 70,000 or 60,000 Kashmiri Muslims died. Let’s just say that the 1990s were a time of great bloodshed, great confusion and mayhem. So Kashmiri Pandits were also targeted, along with all kinds of people. But because they were a minority, and because they perceived themselves as being vulnerable—and they were vulnerable, it has to be admitted—they left.

But once again we have to look at the context within which it was happening. The early 1990s were a time of the consolidation of what we now know as Hindutva, which is a kind of political application of the Hindu faith. So when the Kashmiri Pandits came out of Kashmir, unfortunately and tragically they fell straight into the hands of the right-wing Hindutva forces, who certainly did help them, there’s no doubt about that, but also kind of milked them as a means of beating down what was going on in Kashmir. It was almost as if in the 1990s—and I can even recall this—in, say, a city like Delhi, when people in the progressive, liberal movements started saying, “Look, this is terrible what’s happening in Kashmir,” almost immediately, the first thing that would be told to them was, “What about the Kashmiri Pandits?” It became a way of silencing the conversation on Kashmir.

And they continue to do that right down to the present day. I would say in the last six-seven years, we’ve seen a bit of a change in that, when many people, even in India, are not willing anymore to accept that as the only argument and who actually want to know.

But having said that, the departure of the Kashmiri Pandits—and the estimates of those numbers are anywhere from 140,000 to 240,000—does signify something deeply tragic in contemporary life in Kashmir. We began this conversation by talking about a kind of culture in which there was both a tolerance and an appreciation of other cultures and other faiths. I think that the departure of the Kashmiri Pandits damaged that in a very significant way. It’s a tragedy, of course, for the Kashmiri Pandits themselves, but also for the people of Kashmir and for Kashmir in general.

I think that we have now reached a point when the conversation on Kashmir includes a conversation about Kashmiri Pandits and is not only about Kashmiri Pandits, because that’s really the way it had been played in India otherwise.

The Indian state’s narrative has consistently been, Well, there may be a few malcontents in Kashmir, but these are also cross-border terrorists that are armed and trained by Pakistan and there are very few Kashmiris involved.

There are two ways in which the Indian state defends what it does in Kashmir. If the issue of Kashmiri Pandits is a kind of rationale by which to paint the movement in unpleasant colors, then the conjuring up the specter of Pakistan is, of course, the big one, because it’s almost guaranteed to get you an audience in India. Because of the way we have grown as two countries over the last 70 years, our almost visceral dislike for each other means that if you say, “Oh, Pakistan is behind it,” then you can be guaranteed that most Indians will say, “Well, of course, then this is illegitimate.”

In fact, it’s very interesting that until, say, a decade ago, the government would be delighted every time there were militants killed, and then they would happily tell us about how these were foreign militants. But it’s become increasingly difficult for them to do that, because most of the boys who die—and they are boys, really, most of them are between 20 and 25—I would say that 95% of them are Kashmiris now.

Has Pakistan aided and abetted the armed militancy? Of course they have. But we talked a little while ago about how the Indian government and the Indian army aided and abetted the insurgency in the former East Pakistan, which led to the creation of what is now Bangladesh. Everybody knows that the Indian government was deeply invested in the earlier stages, arming and training the LTTE in Sri Lanka, even if later they fought them. So I would say that I don’t think that there is an armed insurgency anywhere in the world which has been fought without the support of a neighboring state. In that sense, Pakistan is not unique in what it’s doing.

Does Pakistan have some completely kind of altruistic reason to support the militancy and struggle in Kashmir? No. They have their own vested interests. Does that mean that what we see in Kashmir would be nothing without the influence of Pakistan? I think that would be a gross misreading of the situation.

I say this often, if people want to know whether or not this is a popular movement, the best barometer of it is to just be present when there is a funeral of a militant. Because then, when thousands of people, 5,000, 10,000 people, will walk from miles away, they will evade checkposts and traffic restrictions and walk across the fields to pay their respects to someone who has died, that’s when you know that this is clearly not something that is casual or it’s not just some meddling neighbor which has caused this but that it’s a deeply felt struggle.

Deaths, disappearances, those kinds of statistics can be measured. But can you talk about the psychological impact of occupation, of living in a militarized zone. What does it do to not just the occupied but to the occupier as well, about all these hundreds of thousands of Indian troops in Kashmir?

At the very least, on an ordinary day, even if there is no disaster, just the act of negotiating your way past literally dozens of checkpoints, having to show your identification all over the place, having to contend with the fact that at any moment things can get out of control, a simple altercation at a checkpoint between a bus conductor and a soldier could end up with disaster, what it means is that everybody is left in a perpetual state of anxiety.

When you alluded to the mental pressures of it, this is now well documented. Local psychiatrists have done it, organizations like Médecins Sans Frontières have done it. The level of psychiatric illness in Kashmir is very  high. The level of usage of medication is out of control; people are simply on anti-anxiety medicine. And what used to be called and continues to be called post-traumatic stress disorder, the fact is that it’s not post-traumatic in Kashmir. People are getting disabled by everyday life. So the trauma is not over; the trauma is ongoing, it’s every day.

Think of it. We talked about how small a place Kashmir is. Think of 70,000 dead. How many families are there who actually had somebody die in this conflict? Think of every time one person dies, at least five get injured. Think of their families. Think of the incapacities it causes, the limbs that are damaged, the working lives that are truncated. Think of the arrests, think of the tortures. Now we are talking not about 70,000 dead or 500,000 injured, but we could be talking, over 30 years, of half a million people who have been processed through the system of arrests, of tortures, of beatings, of humiliation.

Everybody carries a very thin skin as a consequence. I often have thought about it. What makes that society still function? Ironically, I would say the fact that the family system remains quite strong in Kashmir. In a sense, it binds people together. And in many ways religious faith. I think for people the mosque, the prayer, these are of the things that become their survival at a time like this.

And what about the impact on the occupiers, this huge army, most of whom are not from Kashmir, they’re from other parts of India. They don’t speak Kashmiri, they don’t speak Urdu. 

That’s a very important and valid question. I remember some years ago listening to the Indian scholar Ashis Nandy talk about torture and how, when the session of torture finishes between the tortured and the torturer, there is a third person in that room, and that is the family of the torturer. So when he washes his hands and puts on his shirt and goes home, what does he carry home?

I think that it would be a good point to ask about these half a million soldiers, who have spent years literally sitting upon a population who they know hate them. I think it must be doing something terrible to them.

Everybody talks about that and I have seen it. When small children in a village walk past these heavily armed soldiers who are just standing there all day, you do see these soldiers trying to reach out to those kids, say something, want to talk. They’re human beings, after all. But the antipathy on the part of the local population is so strong that the children will very rarely respond. And what does that do to people, this complete alienation, the feeling—I think that if no one actually amongst them uses that word—that you’re an occupying army and that everybody around here loathes you? I would be very destabilized if I was at the receiving end of something like that.

In 2016, in this decades-long uprising in Kashmir, a young militant is killed. His name is Burhan Wani, 22 years old. That sets off a new round, a new wave of resistance. What triggers that? Simply the death of this young man?

This is very interesting, because Burhan Wani was in many ways not a very well-known militant commander. He was not somebody who had some enviable track record of launching some brave attacks or anything like that. But there was one thing very significant about him. He was a young, good-looking man, but he also started posting pictures of himself and his cohort out in the sunlight.

I think this is quite an interesting moment to think about, how powerful something like that can be. Because militants had traditionally put out their own videos, but they were usually in these dark rooms with a light on and two guns crossed at the back with some strange flag behind them, with their faces covered. So it was never an attractive idea. But Burhan started releasing these pictures in which his face was clearly visible. He would mostly be out on a sunny day in an apple orchard or in a little spot in the mountains making tea for his comrades. He would pose with his pals.

So in a sense he gave a face to the armed militancy. He gave it a face and he gave it, for want of a better word, a grace. I think that’s very interesting, because he did become a poster boy for the militancy. I do recall at that time the police were often quoted as saying, “Oh, this guy is nobody. He’s just a pretty boy. He’s never fought anything or anybody.” But maybe that’s the whole point. The point is that you don’t become an icon simply because you do the obvious thing. I think Burhan Wani is significant because he did what was not obvious at the time but in retrospect was a very smart move. He humanized the militancy and created a kind of space within which the armed struggle got more legitimacy than before.

In February 2019, a suicide bomber, which is a unique phenomenon—this had not been part of the resistance—blows up a bus carrying something like 40 members of the Indian security forces. Repression is ramped up, bringing us very quickly to the events of August 5th. Talk about that period between this suicide bombing and the abrogation of Article 370 and Article 35A of the Indian Constitution.

The suicide attack on the convoy of paramilitary soldiers in February 2019 doesn’t happen out of nowhere. It was actually preceded by at least six months of a very severe crackdown in Kashmir. When we were talking about what normal is, when we say, “a severe crackdown,” then you can imagine what that meant. Basically, not so much in Srinagar city but in the countryside the military was going down to every village, every home just keeping an extraordinary pressure on people, which also meant that they were on a very heightened state of alert. This military presence was everywhere.

This attack came in the middle of that. You could, if you like, read it as a kind of reaction to the six months preceding it, which is what it was. But you are also forced, then, to wonder, how on earth could a man take a vehicle loaded with explosives and drive it right in the middle of a military convoy when the convoy is on the move? And at the time when a military convoy moves in Kashmir, all civilian traffic stops on both sides of the road. So it was an absolutely incredible event. It happened, it was tragic. 42 men lost their lives.

Of course, this was politically milked by the ruling BJP in a very horrid sort of way—those flag-draped coffins coming back to their villages and processions and anti-Pakistan rhetoric, without anybody even knowing whether this boy was from Pakistan or not. We still don’t know.

Of course, this was followed by some skirmishes on the border, what the Indian government called “surgical strikes” against camps across the border in Pakistan. Opinion is hugely divided on that. Both international media and Pakistani media reported that nothing of significance was damaged, but the Indian side claimed it was a huge victory. Indian air force fighter jets crossed over the border. One of them was shot down. The pilot was then, quite graciously, returned. But even that shooting down of our Indian aircraft was turned into a triumph by the Indian government, which is very difficult for me to understand, how, when your own aircraft gets shot down and your pilot gets captured, that is a triumph for you.

This is the background to the events of February 2019, but we all knew that something is cooking. There was an election due in May. I think that many people—and it’s not just cynics like us—suspected that those events had something to do with the election. But in a widespread sort of way, even politicians in India, I know even amongst Dalit politicians, a lot of people were speaking about it, saying that we don’t buy this, something else is going on.

What happened on August 5th is a very different level of things. It’s truly a tectonic shift in that sense. We began by talking about the conditionalities by which Kashmir sort of became a part of the Indian union. Well, Article 370 was that lynchpin that governed the relationship between the state of India and the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Of course, it had been emptied of a lot of meaning over the years, but some symbolic things remained, like the state had its own flag. Small symbols of its separate identity. Everything else had been riddled over the years. But for the BJP the symbolic value of just taking an axe and cutting that lynchpin, taking away the fig leaf was very important. And they did it, in a rather spectacular and unthinking fashion.  

Article 35A was more critical, actually, because this is what gave the residents of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, what we call state subjects, certain special rights. It allowed them—and not just state Kashmiri Muslims but also Ladakhis and also people from Jammu and Muslims from the pahari, hill areas and all of that, all of them—first rights on state government jobs.

But more important, it meant that people who were not state subjects could not buy property in J&K. So it gave people a certain kind of protection. Some would argue that the fact that in Jammu and Kashmir as a state you never see the kind of grinding poverty that you see in India, particularly in northern India, is because of the protections of 370 and 35A. While the BJP is making the claim that we are removing it in order to bring prosperity to Kashmir, well, very eminent Indian economists like Prabhat Patnaik, like Jean Dreze, who have looked at the ground, are saying, no, it’s the other way around. These people have managed because they have not been opened to the terrible influences of large sums of money.

Between the two, between Article 370 and 35A, I would in fact argue that 35A is for Kashmiris the much more loaded one, because it could pave the way for large-scale population transfers, it could pave the way for money swamping Kashmir, people losing their land. This has been the most worrisome thing, actually.

In fact, the richest man in India, Mukesh Ambani, has announced he’s going to be investing in Kashmir. This word vikas comes up a lot. Modi uses it as well.  What does it mean?

Vikas is development. But that notion of modern capitalistic development by now in India has worn thin and people know that that promise of capitalism and capital is a false one. Yes, it is true that Mukesh Ambani was very quick off the mark. Whether he actually thinks that it’s worth his while to invest or not, we don’t know. But the good thing about the capitalist is that if he or she can sense a free lunch somewhere, they know where to go. So I suspect it was more of a kind of symbolic gesture of loyalty to the Modi government than a pragmatic business decision. Because, quite honestly in a place which is as troubled and fraught as it is, I’d want to know what kind of a businessman is going to go in to start what kind of business, other than a pretty simple thing like a land grab. You go in because you can go in and buy land cheap. That would be the only explanation that I can think of.

What prompted Modi and his home minister, Amit Shah, who is very influential and powerful in the government in Delhi, to take this action on August 5th?

We’ll never know the answer to that, obviously, but the removal of Article 370 has been an article of faith for the BJP. So you have to grant them this. From 1955 onwards it’s been part of their manifestos and so on, because they’re not simply willing to concede the special nature of the relationship between Kashmir and India. They see it as a sign of weakness. They have worked on it and made it part of their credo to a point where the rank and file in the BJP probably think that if you remove Article 370, India’s problems will be solved. It’s just something that has been so assiduously cultivated and carefully constructed that it’s taken on a life way beyond what we can see.

You said 1955?

Yes, because by then Sheikh Abdullah had been sent to prison and a series of, how shall we say, submissive governments had taken his place. So in a sense the compromised character of Kashmir’s relationship with India actually did begin by the 1950s.

You’ve said that today as a result of what the Modi government has done, there is a “brutal clarity.”  

One of the characteristics of, for example, previous governments like those led by the Congress was that their intentions were never clear. They were not going to let Kashmiris have more autonomy, they were not going to reduce the level of soldiers, but there was a sort of hypocritical, Oh, we care for the Kashmiris. So two steps forward, one step back, that kind of thing.

But with the BJP under Modi and Amit Shah, I don’t think they are interested in those pretenses. So some people in Kashmir will argue that for the resistance on the ground in many ways this is not a bad thing, because it just with complete clarity lets you know what you’re up against, whereas earlier it had confused people.

We’ve often spoken about it, but what in Kashmir we call the middle ground between the pro-independentist position and India’s position, there was some sort of a middle ground of political formations that were pro-India. For example, I would describe something like the National Conference led by Farooq Abdullah and Omar Abdullah, who both have been chief ministers of the state, or the People’s Democratic Party, led by Mehbooba Mufti, and earlier her father Mufti Mohammed Sayeed. Ironically, on August 5th, all of these people and all of their top cadre were also arrested, and they still remain incarcerated. That’s very telling, because in one sweep you have gotten rid of everybody who is on your side. These were people who kept the flag of India flying in Kashmir, and yet these are the people who have also been dumped into jail and where they still are..

Now Kashmir is going to be ruled directly from Delhi as a union territory. What does that mean?

It just means that the legislative assembly has fewer powers. It means Kashmir will be ruled directly from Delhi. Even earlier, it’s not as if the government of India in Delhi or the military wasn’t calling the shots. It just means now that even that slightly ambiguous layer of popular support that the governments in J&K used to claim on account of being elected in that way, I think that’s now gone. There will be elections, but they will mean almost nothing.

You say that domination does not mean victory.

Absolutely. Those were the closing words of the film that I finished in 2007, Jashn-e-Azaadi. I think that’s the key thing: Simply because you can put 500,000 or 600,000 or 700,000 soldiers sitting on top of people, that doesn’t mean you won; it simply means that you are dominating them. If we were to look at the history of places like Afghanistan and the armies that came and the armies that went, I think there is a lesson somewhere there.

What was the reaction of liberal, educated elites in India to the Modi government’s move on August 5th? I know some of the comments were made, Well, this is no way to treat our fellow Indians. Is that what Kashmiris wanted to hear from liberals?

No, obviously not. But I have to say that for a change I thought that liberal, progressive opinion in India did finally wake up to the enormity of what Kashmiris had been experiencing in some ways. So far they had been seeing it as a kind of human rights situation—Oh, this should not happen, they should not be tortured, there should not be custodial killings and disappearances. But I think with August 5th they realized that there was a legal, a political, or even a constitutional travesty that had been performed. I think that was good.

Interestingly, there have been at least five, if not six, very good fact-finding trips that Indian civil society groups undertook to Kashmir. And I have to say that I think those have had some effect, because those have been picked up by the international media, they have gotten circulation within the UN system, and so on.

Does that mean that most of those people are ready to concede the right to self-determination to Kashmiris? I’m not sure. But I would say half of them do. I think it’s all right. I think that even if the slightly wishy-washy position that says, Oh, this should not be happening to you, although we think you should be part of India and your right to self-determination is not a valid argument—even if that position annoys be Kashmiris, at least it’s better than the other position they could possibly take.

There have been reports of Israeli involvement in Kashmir. Do you have any information on that?

There is enough news now about the formal collaboration between the defense forces of Israel and the Indian army. I think most recently I was reading that the Indian air force was in Israel doing joint exercises with the Israeli Special Forces. In Kashmir we have had a visit by the deputy chief of the IDF, Israel Defense Forces, some years ago, which was highly unusual, because we don’t hear of the deputy chief of the IDF, for example, going to Nagaland or to Chennai, so these are significant.

This time around many journalists wrote about a new and different way in which the clampdown was being conducted. People who follow these things closely could very clearly see a kind of signature of the way the Israeli security forces have operated in the West Bank. There is also a very different level of high-technology surveillance equipment which is being used by the J&K police. Obviously, you can’t tell, but after August 5th there were these rumors of small teams of “Israelis” who were floating around. We don’t know if that is necessarily true, but what we do know is that the way in which the curfews and the clampdowns are being conducted has a very different signature to it, and a signature which is familiar to those who follow events in Palestine.

In the Kashmir context the words shahid and shahadat are particularly important. Explain what those terms mean.

Shahid, is one of those words which has a kind of dual meaning, where you are both a witness and martyr. Even when I made the film more than 10 years ago, I was fascinated by this idea, and then in Witness, the book that I edited I again dwell on it—this idea that once you witness something, you are also a martyr to it, you can’t escape it. So the act of witnessing is a very complete thing. So I like this duality. I must tell you this, that when we looked at it, the word martys in Greek also has the same duality. So martys, which is the root word for martyr, actually also has within it the idea of witnessing. It’s very interesting that both in Greek and in Farsi and Arabic this word always has had this kind of duality. I think it’s for all of us who are both witness and martyr to what we are witnessing. I think it’s a reassuring word in that sense.

How much closer to azaadi, that dream of freedom, is Kashmir today?

You’re asking me to speak about something which obviously—who can wager a guess? But I think that these past 30 years of a very expensive and brutal struggle, for which Kashmiris have paid with their blood, have not been wasted years. These have been years in which people have understood for themselves, what are we standing for, who are we, what constitutes a Kashmiri. So I think in political terms these have been years in which there has been some clarification. And I think that even in the present, even post August 5th with the abrogation of Article 370 and 35A, it has only sharpened that conversation.

All I can say is, what do we ask the people of Palestine, for example? We can’t ask them, How close are you to achieving your goal? All we know is that if the goal is an ethical and honorable one, then it’s worth fighting for. Does it mean that you are fighting it just for the sake of it? I don’t think so. I don’t think anybody in Kashmir thinks that they are fighting a futile war. I think they think victory is somewhere around the corner. Will it be 1 year, 5 years, 10 years, 20 years? Who can say? But the fight is on for sure.

What can people do?

For a long time now it’s been very important for people to act upon their own governments, wherever they are. This time around we saw quite an extraordinary amount of mobilization in the U.S., for example, where younger Kashmiri Americans have worked extremely hard and managed to create quite a substantial dent in the circles of government, for example, lobbying with Congressmen and women, managing to find a place at Congressional hearings. That’s the best kind of support. I think that anywhere in the world, even in India, when people want to help, they don’t necessarily have to gather money and buy coats and send them to Kashmiri children or fly off to Srinagar and help with some school. No, not necessarily. But they can work upon their own governments and force them to take cognizance of the facts, which is what is happening right now. I think that’s a good thing.

You have produced highly acclaimed documentaries, such as Jashn-e-Azaadi, How We Celebrate Freedom, about Kashmir, The Red Ant Dream. What are your future plans?

I don’t think I’m making a film for a while in Kashmir, but I also did a book a year ago, a book of photographs of nine photo journalists called Witness, which was another way of addressing Kashmir. Because through the work of these nine photographers who have grown up and become working professionals in these years, 1986-2016, you also find a way of telling the story of Kashmir. I would like to continue to speak about Kashmir and think my way through the present and through the wonderful work that a lot of scholars and journalists and others are doing. So it’s a very rich territory. I’m totally occupied by it, in a sense. But does that mean it will necessarily be a film? I don’t think so. What form it takes I don’t know. 

Thanks very much for your time.

Thank you, David. Always a pleasure.

(Due to time constraints some portions of the interview were not included in the national broadcast. Those portions are included in this transcript.)

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